Tuesday, August 21, 2012

One of those girls

I've gotten used to that feeling now. It's the Inward Cringe. The eye rolling, slightly sinking feeling when a politician doesn't know the difference between Muslims and Sikhs, a celebrity thinks it's okay to use brownface, a movie star shoots a film about India and converts to Hinduism as a result, and most recently, when a magazine prints a feature full of embarrassing cultural appropriation.

And it's weird that this makes me uncomfortable, because I'm not even Indian. Or maybe it is because I'm not Indian. I'm married to an Indian citizen, have lived in India, and have been acquainted with Indian communities in the US for over a decade. And every time one of these stories pops up, I'm a little embarrassed and frustrated - how come people don't have even basic intercultural knowledge when it comes to South Asia? - and at the same time, I wonder if I am perceived in the same way as Julia Roberts or Anja Ploetz -- as "one of those girls." A cultural dabbler; a dilettante; the girl who, wearing a sparkly salwar suit in the convenience store, tries to strike up a conversation in Hindi with the Sri Lankan working behind the counter; someone who flippantly talks about how Americans don't really have a culture so is it so wrong if I like yours? It's so spiritual. So colorful.

I feel I have to justify myself in some ways, so here's my story, in short form: I'm married to an Indian, who I met because I was learning Hindi and he thought it was weird. I was learning Hindi because I had recently started singing in it. Singing in Hindi happened because a few of my friends from India would listen to their CDs in my car and I learned some of the words so I could sing along, then one of them entered me in a talent showcase and it spiraled a little out of control to the point where I had 1-2 singing engagements a month. Plus, I wanted to learn Hindi so that I understood when these same friends were talking about me. :) They taught me to cook, we'd hang out together, we'd go to cultural events together; making Indian food and wearing bangles to appropriate events quickly seemed normal to me, not weird or special or exotic. We'd make vada pav and then go watch an independent movie at the Angelika in jeans and halter tops, or we'd go for a Diwali celebration dressed up in sarees and then have dinner at an Italian restaurant. I was brought up in multicultural cities and understood that "different" from one point of view was "normal" from another one, and that nothing was really "different" once you got used to it. Cultural mix was just a part of life.

And when I was singing, I tried to be especially careful. I knew I didn't understand everything, and I wanted to make sure I was appropriate, not appropriating. Even when in Indian dress, I refused to wear bindis for the longest time, mostly because of the impression Madonna and Gwen Stefani gave of white women wearing bindis. It was not until I was at an engagement and a woman huffily stuck a bindi on my forehead in the bathroom that I actually wore one on stage. Eventually, my rule of thumb became "do appropriate things when appropriate." And to do this requires a lot of listening and not very much talking, a lot of observing and as little "look at me" as possible. It requires humility, gratitude, and the constant need to 'check your privilege' and realize that you can be both a guest and a part of the group all at the same time. It requires building relationships, building trust, and - this is the tough one - being okay with however others choose to view you.

But I still bristle when someone asks me "why I am into Indian culture" because even though Indian culture is a fairly major influence on my life, culture isn't something you're "into" like knitting or river rafting or the complete works of Justin Bieber. I know this, but I don't know that other people know that I know this. And although I certainly accept that I can't change anyone's first impression of me, I still do not want to be viewed as that silly dilettante, as one of those girls. I've spent ten years deconstructing stereotypes, trying to not become a stereotype, and every time something like this hits the news, it seems it's back to square one. It's almost like I have to say something about Julia Roberts, Gwen Stefani, Anja Ploetz, in order to distance myself from them, to prove that I am somehow different from them.

But at the same time, am I?

What do I know about Anja Ploetz other than what the editors of New York Magazine decided to include in their 100-word article? What do I know about the blonde girl in the magenta sari at the farmers market?

Does being married to an Indian or living in India or having a basic understanding of intercultural communication make us superior to those who do not have that kind of connection?

Does it give us the right to judge?

Is it appropriate to try to distance ourselves from those we perceive as dilettantes?

Does it give us the responsibility to educate or deconstruct stereotypes?

Let me know your thoughts.

(This post is in part inspired by Jessica Kumar's article "Conversion vs. Covenant: White Hinduism - a Religion of its Own?")


  1. Hey! Welcome (back) to the blogosphere!

    Girl, even Indian me has ruminated a lot on the things you say in your post. Ultimately, don't undermine the human capacity to tell for reals from inauthentic. So, yes, we must absolutely distance ourselves from those we perceive as dilettantes, but while a) perceiving with discernment and b) keeping in mind that even those with brown skin can be said dilettantes. Case in point are those born and raised inside and outside India who try to reclaim their Indian-ness at some point and fail miserably at it. You just know, you can simply tell, that it isn't working. That cringe you speak of is the inherent ability to pull out those who are trying the culture on as commodity as being fake. (You can try anything on for size to see if it suits you, but never as commodity. That speaks volumes about a personal maturity; we'll come back to this later.)

    So, this brings us to a damned good question: What is Indian-ness? Is it simply looking like a typical Indian, knowing how to wear a sari or dhoti, telling a bhel puri from a pani puri and knowing the ins and outs of all major Indian festivals and holidays? Do you have to have grown up in the culture to be referred to by it? I own tons of saris, speak, read and write Tamil, Hindi and Sanskrit and can perform pujas in my sleep. Yeah, I guess that makes me Indian, but I can switch it all off when I want and do more often than not. In that regard, you are a lot more Indian than me. But, are you? How much and when? What does "how much" even mean?

    This is why I say culture is a dynamic, continuous choice, especially so for those of us who have lived the world over and have gone as far as marrying those from outside of our cultures. The example of my husband brings us back to authenticity: When he wears a kurta-pajama, he OWNS that outfit. He doesn't look a bit Indian, but wears his Indian clothes (and he understands they are clothes, not COSTUME aaarggghhh) well and attends Indian functions with respect and genuine curiosity. Does he want to be called an Indian? No. Will he ever live in India for even two months or become a Hindu? Hell, no. But, for those few hours that he inhabits Indian-ness, he is fully committed and present. This is the personal maturity I alluded to earlier: That it's not all about you so watch-listen-learn and, more importantly, that you will never find yourself outside of you. This is something the dilettantes will never get because they were never there in the first place.

    Finally, I don't know if intercultural sophistication makes you superior to those who don't possess it, but it sure helps you (and helps you help others) parse the world better. It shows that you are socially and intellectually outward-facing in general, which is always a good place to make society-impacting decisions from.

    Before I leave, let me register that I am so glad you wrote this and at a new blog. Even if written on culture, your post is analytical and welcoming of back and forth. It's hard to have longform and not-derailed discussions on Twitter and Facebook, respectively, and so many blog posts any more are extremely navel-gazey. Yes, we often write on our blogs as diaries and to discover ourselves, but a lot of it is extremely hard to respond to. I am also sure I will have more to say about this post as I think on it.

    P.S. I translated the blog title as "our little earth." Right? If so, geo-kisses to you!

    1. As always, Maitri, you say things so eloquently, with words I wish I could have come up with!

      "perceiving with discernment" ... I really think that is the crux of the matter. You are absolutely correct; in a world where we do form communities, it is difficult for people to trust us if we pal around with people who are known to be untrustworthy, or people who are perceived to not be their authentic selves and who are either unaware of the fact or unwilling to do anything to challenge that perception.

      "You will never find yourself outside of you." I think there is a marked difference between experiencing something you have not experienced before and having it add on and become part of you (indeed, is this not how we grow up?) and attempting a personality transplant all at once in order to "find yourself." We become who we are day by day. If I were to give away my saris and trade them in for booty shorts, listen only to country music or Radiohead, and learn to ski because that's what white people are supposed to do, that would be inauthentic. I'd be grasping at straws, trying to be something I'm not.

      "intercultural sophistication...helps you parse the world better." THIS. THIS. SO MUCH THIS. I want every high school kid to go to a developing country for two months after graduation and live on an average upper-middle-class salary. I want them to see how people live somewhere else. I want them to struggle with not understanding everything, with seeing the world from a non-American perspective, with trying so hard to do everything right and end up doing everything wrong. I want them to see that there are different ways of doing things, that the way we see things here is not necessarily "the right way" of doing things, it is "one way" of doing them. I want the sky to open up for these kids and have them see that there are billions more stars than they could have ever imagined, and that sensitivity to different perspectives is preferable to ethnocentric egotism.

      " are a lot more Indian than me. But, are you?" This is one of the things I would argue with. I hear it a lot! But I'm not Indian; my formative years were very typically American (minus the religious indoctrination part). Despite what I have learned and the things I have acculturated to, there are things I don't know that are fundamental. I could write another entire blog entry on this! And I probably will, eventually.

      These days, my stock answer to the all-too-typical and rather silly question, "So what do you like better, American culture or Indian culture?" is "Internet culture." :D

      And the title translates "My little world" but at the same time the meaning is closer to what you intended :)

  2. When I came from India back to Germany for the first time, the country and my in-laws had made such a strong effect on me that I changed hardly noticeably to myself. I wore Salwar Kameez with matching Bindis, had my Bangle collection, my kitchen gods and when I would leave the house, I would take care that the hair is proper secured and not wildly flying around.
    I learned English in school, but never really spoke it, so that India was the first country, where I actually had to speak English and obviously I learned it with the typical gestures and a strong accent, which wasn’t German at all.
    For other people I must have looked weird, a dilettante probably, but for me it was just normal.
    Eventually it faded away, and western influences took over, but I can understand, that you want to take something from this culture, the feelings with you…
    When I see the pictures of Anja Ploetz, I don’t see anything unusual / it doesn’t seem to be a costume for her, after all she wears it daily… and whoever lived through any middle European fall/winter/spring with months after months of dreadful grey, cloudy days, may understand the urgent need for bright, bold colors.
    I find her actually quite remarkable as well, to live in the fashion capital of the world and to say: Without me, because I will wear the same style of clothing every day.

    One professor in astrophysics at the university here in Vermont, Joanna Rankin, is wearing Salwar Kameez since at least 30 years. Does she look different to other people, yes,a dilettante, maybe. - Does she care? I don’t think so :)

    1. This is why I am wary of passing judgment, particularly on people I don't know. Especially just based on someone's dressing sense. A girl in a salwar kameez may be wearing it because her Indian in-laws are in town, because it's cooler than jeans, or just because she thinks it is pretty or flattering. I don't see any problem with any of that (and certainly if you keep it up for 30 years, that's not cultural dabbling!)

      Where my "for reals vs. inauthentic" meter starts going off, as Maitri put it, is when the visible and invisible elements of culture stop meshing. To use clothing as an example, there's times when it completely matches - for instance, wearing a sari to a Hindu temple - moments of cultural fusion - wearing a cotton salwar suit on any given summer Saturday because it's cooler than sweating it out in jeans, or wearing a T-shirt with a Bollywood movie poster printed on it to a party - and then times when it is completely jarring, like wearing a heavily beaded lehenga to go shopping or attend a music festival. Any misappropriation of religious iconography would go in the "jarring" category for me as well. I have even seen a Caucasian girl in hijab sitting in Cafe Brazil in Dallas, flirting with the Arab guys at her table and sitting in their laps. I personally would not choose to wear saris daily, but I won't begrudge Anja Ploetz that; however, her use of bridal bangles as just "pretty jewelry" crosses that funky fusion line into appropriative and jarring in my opinion. I would not wear a rosary as a pretty necklace, and I can imagine that some people who wear churas as signs they were recently married may resent her use of them as everyday dress.

    2. I think that since western clothes have infected so much of the world, it's a good thing to bring the wonderful bright gorgeous Indian clothes to the west. I don't see it as a cultural appropriation, but of a two way street of fashion. Why should western clothes be the default? I think western women should wear Indian clothes not because they are Indian but because they are awesome!

    3. Although I agree, the only thing that made me uncomfortable in the profile of Ms. Ploetz was the wearing the bridal jewelry.

      I can't wait to wear a mangalasutra, but would not dream of doing it until I'm given it on my wedding day!

    4. Ambaa, I think we've definitely seen Indian fashion make inroads into the US; kurta-style "tunics" haven't gone away, nor have chandelier earrings or bangles, although they're worn in different ways here than in India. I think that racism still tends to cause a majority of people to view those who wear salwar kameez and saris and bindis as "Other" whereas people can wear Norwegian sweaters with traditional embroidery, berets, and to a growing extent, kilts, and still be considered mainstream. I think that, actually, plays a bigger part than people who say it is wrong for a white girl to wear a salwar kameez; it isn't so much people saying "Those are OUR clothes; hands off" as much as the majority saying "People who wear those are not Real Americans." And I do wonder if we could battle the latter, racist attitude by wearing them (of course, in culturally appropriate ways) ??

      I think the "appropriateness" thing is really important; American culture does tend to twist and digest things into a different form (the concept of a geisha, anyone?) I'm not going to wear a lengha choli to the club and perpetuate a "sexy exotic" stereotype that contributes to racism. But wearing a well-fitting, modest cotton salwar kameez to do laundry on a hot day - I simply cannot see the problem in it.

    5. I've been thinking more about this and am even starting to question whether the wearing of the wedding bangles is a problem.

  3. Andrea, you bring out a lot of good points.

    Really to me, it boils down to one question. In the quest to be 'me' or 'more me than ever', do comparisons to others really help or hinder?

    Celebrity-dom is an interesting place. Sometimes celebrities do things out of desire, and sometimes their agents do it for them. Sometimes it's a mix. Sometimes a celebrity's career is fading, so they have to do something to get in the limelight again. Just because they take up a foreign, exotic culture does that make them a spokesperson for it? To us, it may seem superficial, but to them it may be the deepest experience they ever have had.

    And, the beauty as you describe so well, is we come into these 'likes' and 'lifestyles' differently. No one's entry is better than others. It's just different. And, to me that's ok. If I sit and judge all the celebrities for doing what they do, the person I should judge most harshly is myself. In fact, when we look deeply at any judgment, we may think we are judging another, but really a judging of another is a reflection of a judgment of ourselves.

    All this reminds me of high school. In my high school there were different groups. For sake of argument, let's say there were the 'normal' kids and the 'metal heads'. So, let's say a 'normal' kid wanted to become a 'metal head' but didn't quite get it right. What did the metal heads call this kid? A poser. All he or she was trying to do was appreciate another culture (in this case a subculture) and find new friends and find a place to fit in.

    This scenario is really no different. We may talk ourselves into believing it is because it deals with another completely different country's culture, not a subculture, but the concept is the same.

    So, who are the true Indiaphiles? Who are the true non-Indians who have become Indians? Who are the posers? Does it really matter? :)

    1. I think that when you are trying to become the best "you" that you can be, the only one to really compare yourself to is yourself at previous moments in time. I think people do have a tendency to compare themselves to others, hopefully to give themselves an ego-boost and not the other way around! Even in intercultural situations you see this; I can't say that I haven't gone to a function and tried to figure out who looked better in a saree -- me, or one of the other two non-Indian girls there ;)

      I don't begrudge anyone their spiritual beliefs, but I absolutely do think that taking up a foreign, exotic culture to resurrect a fading celebrity career is exploitative. The focus should be "look at you" and not "look at me" or "what benefit can my career/image/bank account derive from adopting these strange, foreign practices?" In fact, if you believe a practice is "strange," it's probably best not to identify with it at all! Of course, everything celebs do is scrutinized so what is done out of sincerity and what is done as a means to an end can cross into grey territory, but it's the patterns that show us what's real and what was done for a photo-op.

      You are spot on about how judging others is a reflection of how we judge ourselves. This is where discernment comes in. A person who is constantly judging others almost certainly has a sense of dissatisfaction or insecurity about themselves. But I also know that I will be able to become better at being 'me' if I associate with people who are also on the way to become better 'themselves' as well, as opposed to people content with superficial understanding, or worse, those who go into it with ill intention.

  4. I would assume educating the folks will help build the sensitivities and also deconstruct the stereotypes as there is a better understanding where certain processes originate from. It is easy to judge , but then what is the difference - we not making any change to the situation . Ignorance is comforting and a bliss that without the right direction/education will continue to cloud the thinking of the population .

    I do like the write up . Some deep soul searching and desire to do the right thing.

    1. Hi toddler (great name), thanks for your comment! I think, too, that after attaining a good amount of cultural knowledge of a second culture, we can serve as go-betweens and people who are fluent (or at least proficient) in both cultures. But at the same time it's important to realize that our views are still incomplete, and not fall into stereotyping when we are trying to educate.

  5. I have to agree with you. Even before I married an Indian I thought it was very narrow-minded and ignorant to confuse the two. Muslim and Sikh's don't even wear the same style turban. I don't see how anyone could mix the two up. It's absurd. That's just as bad as how some people think all brown people are Mexican. Um, no. It amazes me how culturally ignorant many Americans are since we grow up with so many cultures around us and so much of our own history comes from other parts of the world.

    1. A lot of America doesn't though. There are some places where there really isn't a lot of ethnic diversity, and I guess people just don't go out looking for what they aren't aware of. I know of an area in this state where the "big town" in the area has 2,000 people. It does have a substantial Native American population, but I can't imagine any of these people knowing even what a Sikh is; it simply doesn't cross their radar on a daily basis. Now that we have the internet, I think those knowledge gaps are closing, but it will still take some time. And I doubt that the people who write the textbooks will allow anything resembling non-negative discussion of religions that aren't Christianity (but I'm bitter like that).

  6. Oh man. This is a subject that definitely comes up a lot for me. And I don't have the "excuse" of being married to an Indian man!

    The question of whether I have any right to the culture, clothes, traditions, and language of India continues to come up for me over and over again.

    I've found that all I can do is be true to my heart. And some people will want to think of me as "one of *those* girls." But that's going to be their issue to work out. I'm doing what feels right to me and I won't accept that I can be kept from it because of the place of my birth or the color of my skin.

    Am I not allowed to say that because I am white? Does the privilege of being white mean that it's wrong for me to convert to Hinduism? I welcome anyone of any skin color to take what they like from my ethnic heritage. I've always thought that humanity is one family and that each person needs to follow the culture and tradition that makes sense in their hearts.

    I might be wrong. I might be a jerk. But I live my life authentically to how I understand Hinduism and that's the best that I can do.

    1. Have you ever faced this overtly, off the internet? I have found many people on the internet are not interested in dialogue and trying to find out people's motivations; they assume everyone is ill-intentioned and are more interested in judging. I was trying to be careful not to do this in my post.

      What kinds of dialogues have you been able to open with people who are not comfortable with your identification or presentation?

    2. You're right, it has been pretty much all on the Internet. I think out in the world people don't feel comfortable with confrontation. There have been some strange looks, but no one has approached me and been upset.

      I've had positive response both on and off line. When I started going to Chinmaya, my study group accepted me as I was. They were not shocked or upset. And I once had a guy at a gas station fascinated by me wearing an Om necklace, wanting to know if I knew what it was. Once a young Indian-American woman at the bank saw me wearing a bindi and said, "Is that a bindi?" I said, "Yes." And I didn't elaborate!

      I guess in real life once people ask that question about whether I know what something is, that's the end of it!

      The response even on the Internet has been mostly positive. The negative experiences leap out in one's memory, but I've found that rare. And these days I feel like if someone has a problem with me, that's his or her own karma to deal with and not really anything to do with me.

  7. Hari Om<3
    Very nice to meet you.<3

    i am not married to an Indian...but i am married to India...Because Beloved Shiva is Everything...Everyone. i am married to Beloved Shiva...i am His servant, daughter, sister, His friend...anything He ask me to become. It is done.

    So in a way i can understand the issue at hand. The first times in the temple were enough to give me a heart attack....all i could do was run to Him...sit at his feet and say...Beloved...I know i look strange...but i come SO FAR just to be here...have mercy.

    You know after a dozen or so one seemed to notice. The Priest always lovingly accepted us. Always making sure to come see and speak to us. We were lil lost kentucky Hindu...found life time after lifetime...despite the clothes change and change in co-ordinates.:P

    Be who you are...this is the only One you can be...and from this strangers looks wonderful, beautiful..and such a sincerity...just comes from your words.

    Just be happy Beloved<3

  8. Hi Andrea,
    This a great post, I have the same cringing feeling about that in general.
    This topic is very close to my heart.
    As a child growing up in a multicultural (Irish/Costa Rican) home I didn't see the difference between both sides of my family. This was only pointed out by others, when I was involved in cultural activities, who assumed I was "appropriating." I use to do Irish Step Dancing; when I would compete people would point, stare at me and mutter because I didn't look like your stereotypical Irish girl. When I was in grade school I got beat up by some Dominican girls because, "White girls shouldn't try to speak Spanish, it's our language."
    All this because someone was judging me based on my looks or my name. They didn't bother to talk to me, to ask; nope they just assumed.
    After these kinds of experiences with my own cultural background, you would imagine that I would be hesitant to show the world my affinity for different cultures; but it has not.
    Mind you it took some time before I felt comfortable enough to go out in public with a bindi, sindoor, and kurta; even now it's not an everyday thing.
    I think the most important thing is to learn and understand what meaning these things have, respect that and realize you can't please everyone, just be true to yourself.
    I guess to sum up: I can't stand when celebrities try out a religion or culture for nothing more then a photo op and publicity; Don't judge a book by it's cover; and I honestly don't care what Anja Ploetz was wearing, however I cringed when she said 'red spot.'

    1. Hi Emily! I love your blog :)
      Your perspective as someone growing up in a multicultural house is so good. I think that we do often judge people by a first glance. I know that I often do!

      Context and relationships I think are so, so important when navigating intercultural waters. You can't - and shouldn't - try to please everyone! But it bothers me too when people value individuality so much that they feel they can pick and choose elements from others' cultures without considering the impact it has on that culture, ESPECIALLY when it is, as you said, for photo ops/publicity/book deals/etc. Publishers snap up books by a white person about India but a book by an Indian about India goes rejected... hmm... that kind of thing is very bothersome to me!


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